The Human Capacity for Self-Deception

It’s common upon hearing news of an individual committing some kind of atrocity to wonder how they ever brought themselves to do it. It’s also common to act rather indignant when that individual argues that their heinous act was actually for the great good because it’s automatically assumed that they’re lying to protect their own skin. However, humans have a marvelous capacity for self-deception as demonstrated by classified documents revealed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU):

One of the most important lessons of the CIA’s torture program is the way it corrupted virtually every individual and institution associated with it. Over the years, we have learned how lawyers twisted the law and psychologists betrayed their ethical obligations in order to enable the brutal and unlawful torture of prisoners.


Perhaps the most striking element of the document is the CIA doctors’ willful blindness to the truth of what they were doing. CIA doctors decided that waterboarding actually “provided periodic relief” to a prisoner because it was a break from days of standing sleep deprivation. Similarly, CIA doctors decided that when a different prisoner was stuffed into a coffin-sized box, this provided a “relatively benign sanctuary” from other torture methods. CIA doctors described yet another prisoner — who cried, begged, pleaded, vomited, and required medical resuscitation after being waterboarded — as “amazingly resistant to the waterboard.” Incredibly, CIA doctors concluded that the torture program was “reassuringly free of enduring physical or psychological effects.”

This reminds me of a quote from Rudolf Diels, Himmler’s predecessor:

The infliction of physical punishment is not every man’s job, and naturally we were only too glad to recruit men who were prepared to show no squeamishness at their task. Unfortunately, we knew nothing about the Freudian side of the business, and it was only after a number of instances of unnecessary flogging and meaningless cruelty that I tumbled to the fact that my organization had been attracting all the sadists in Germany and Austria without my knowledge for some time past. It had also been attracting unconscious sadists, i.e. men who did not know themselves that they had sadist leanings until they took part in a flogging. And finally it had actually been creating sadists. For it seems that corporal chastisement ultimately arouses sadistic leanings in apparently normal men and women. Freud might explain it.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was likely looking for particular sorts of individuals to staff its prison camps. Namely individuals who weren’t squeamish in the presence of torture. Moreover, the CIA likely attracted many unconscious sadists who didn’t really know why they found the job description appealing. And the agency was almost certainly creating sadists by putting individuals in increasingly more sadistic positions that eventually desensitized them to the jobs that they were doing.

People who like to inflict physical pain generally don’t need to justify their actions to themselves. But what about the unconscious sadists and those who were perfectly normal before taking a job at a CIA prison camp? They likely had some difficulty sleeping at night… at first. Oftentimes when an individual’s actions bother their conscious they try to justify their actions to themselves. “I wasn’t torturing him, I as providing periodic relief by giving him a break from forced sleep deprivation!” “The methods used to interrogate these individuals don’t leave enduring physical or psychological effects so is it really that harmful?” “If we don’t use these methods, we won’t be able to find out the information we need in time to save lives!” Eventually most people are able to convince themselves that what they did was good and they are able to sleep soundly at night. Through this method a seemingly well adjusted individual can perform heinous acts and truly believe that what they’re doing is actually a good thing.